The first big action scene in director Li Liming's 'Ip Man: Kung Fu Master' involves a police officer confronting an army of hatchet-wielding men (and one woman) in the courtyard of a building. It's like a low-budget, less preposterous riff on Stephen Chow's sublime 'Kung Fu Hustle' - although there aren't any pinball noises dubbed over the fight scene, bodies and axes are soon flying everywhere as the cop makes his way through the building. When there are 100 people in the gang, and only five can be fighting a single opponent at once, it must be pretty awkward to be in the back of that crowd, just waiting around.
Said cop is Ip Man (Dennis To), the real-life martial arts legend best known - in the West, anyway - for training Bruce Lee. Ip's life has been explored by a slew of recent films, including a series of Hong Kong smashes starring Donnie Yen, Wong Kar Wai's 'The Grandmaster', a moodier take on the material with a greater emphasis on the philosophies of kung fu, and Herman Yau's 'Ip Man: The Final Fight', which was rather dull and a waste of Anthony Wong.
Ip lived through tumultuous times, including the Boxer Rebellion and the Sino-Japanese War. 'Ip Man: Kung Fu Master' harks back to Ip's early days before the Communist Revolution in 1949, when he was a police captain in Foshan (something which, surprisingly, hasn't been explored in any of the previous films based on his life). Here, he is framed for the murder of an extremely cool mobster Third Father (a smooth Michael Wong), and targeted for vengeance the criminal's heir (Wanliruo Xin in the standout role). Compelled to quit the force, Ip then has to deal with the invasion of the Japanese army in Guangzhou.
Making a film about Ip involves the tricky proposition of getting an audience invested in a real-life figure whose fate is preordained. Also, Ip famously eschewed embellishment and favoured humility, so he wasn't exactly the most colourful character. This means that the fresh twist and potentially fun premise of 'Ip Man: Kung Fu Master' - a martial arts deity working the streets a tough-as-nails cop - is muted by Ip's bland persona, despite To's skill with the fight choreography (he previously portrayed the kung fu expert in Herman Yau's 'Ip Man: The Legend Is Born,' and Jeff Lau's 'Kung Fu League').
When there are 100 people in the gang, and only five can be fighting a single opponent at once, it must be pretty awkward to be in the back of that crowd, just waiting around.
The 'Ip Man' films go down well in mainland China because the franchise shamelessly panders to the usual government-friendly nationalist types. Look at the model traditional Chinese man, he's got great kung fu, he's polite and humble, his house looks like a Chinese culture museum, and so on. Then the evil Japanese (or British, Americans, Mike Tyson, etc) come along, and colonialist shit ensues. To call 'Ip Man' a franchise of historical movies based on the life of a real man is the equivalent of calling 'Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter' a biopic movie.
In Western countries, the 'Ip Man' films are sought out by action nerds because of the sublime fight scenes, not for the propaganda value. For example, in the Donnie Yen-starring series, Sammo Hung's fight choreography is clever and exciting, with sequences that have Ip felling a sword-wielding rival with a feather duster, holding off two men with a ten-foot pole, or pummelling a room full of karatekas.
Unfortunately, 'Ip Man: Kung Fu Master' plays out like a collection of greatest hits vignettes barely connected to one another. Just as cursory as its portraiture are its kung fu battles, which are staged with bland competence yet prove devoid of novelty or excitement, in large part because there's never anything at stake. That's also true of the climax, in which Ip finally faces off against the main baddie (the Japanese officer who killed his friend, just like in Wilson Yip's 2008 film) in a showdown that's utterly perfunctory.
From its okay beginning to serviceable close, 'Ip Man: Kung Fu Master' is a somewhat monotonous, wannabe-mythmaking biopic for Ip completists only.